When reading stories, we can feel the heartache, the joy, the love, and the suffering of an imaginative hero. But the best books offer up so much empathy that we cry over the character’s plight. So, how do we craft a character so richly that our readers’ hearts break?
“A reader who feels moved by a book will read it again, tell others about it, recommend it to her reading circle, and remember it for the rest of her life. If you can arouse strong emotions in the readers, your book will be [a] success,” says author Rayne Hall (48%).
Go Deep Into the Character’s Soul
Fiction writer Rayne Hall suggests, “Get deep into the [point-of-view character’s] experience. This is the most important method. The reader experiences events through the filter of the [point-of-view] character. If you handle this skilfully, what the [point-of-view character] feels is what the reader feels. Pay special attention to visceral responses …, thoughts …, and descriptions” (48%).
It’s beautiful how we can watch a movie or read a book and feel for almost any main character. That’s a testimony to our ability to feel empathy. But to feel empathy, we first need to grab onto something likable about the character. Screenplay writers often have the hero start off doing something sweet, kind, generous—anything noble. For instance, the hero might be aggressive with his wife, but the coolest dad imaginable, coaching his boy’s hockey team and choosing his boy as most valuable player. Or the main character can be self-loathing and self-isolating but an animal whisperer, making dear friends with any wild animal she meets.
Once we start to love the character, we can see more clearly through her eyes. We tend to cast no blame on her, but feel empathy—for we become her. Imagine if we could see other people’s life stories through their eyes, like a form of mind reading? We’d never feel anger or spite toward another soul, only empathy. I believe that level of empathy would reveal to us the beauty inside every soul. Even a mosquito has a purpose and inner beauty, in my view.
The deeper you go into anyone’s soul, the more beauty you’ll see.
Stir Up Reader’s Memories
Author Rayne Hall says, “Trigger the reader’s own memories. Readers respond most strongly when what happens in the book evokes an emotional situation from their own life. A reader who has had to live in a flat where the heating has broken down leading to weeks of ice cold rooms, damp seeping through the walls and mould creeping across the wallpaper because the landlord ignored complaints will immediately feel the exasperation, anger, and despair of a [point-of-view character] who has a neglectful landlord” (48%).
As an example, I read about a teacher who taught disadvantaged children. Whenever he taught how to run a business, they eagerly listened, no matter how badly those kids acted minutes before.
I loved reading that story because it triggers my memories. The class of students I tutored were disinterested in my class discussions. But when I talked about physical fitness, they had lots of questions. After I told them how to body build, one student said, “I finally learned something.” Not a testimony to my teaching, but a sign that people are curious about certain topics that relate to themselves.
And then there are events that many people feel—life events—such as the teen who turns eighteen and feels old, or the woman in her fifties who fears her husband’s midlife crisis. Or the grandparent who wonders if her life held any meaning.
If people hold similar memories, they’ll feel for yours.
Tell with Smells
Rayne Hall advises, “Use smells. This is a micro method to trigger emotions instantly. No other sense evokes emotions as strongly as the sense of smell. Mention what a person smells like, and the reader will immediately like or dislike her. Describe the odours of a place, and the reader will feel relaxed or disgusted. A single sentence is all that’s needed” (49%).
Mom’s home smelled of freshly baked bread mingled with plants and homebrewed black tea. Another home I’d visit smelled of body sweat, coconut oil, and fettuccini. Yet another home smelled of pet dander, new leather, and fax paper. Don’t these smells cause a gut reaction, a liking or disliking? This is why aromatherapy is felt to be beneficial. Orange or lemon scented essential oils are considered to boost happiness, for instance. And lavender may lull us to sleep. Perfume can make us like or loathe someone, too, depending on how sensitive the snout is to sweet toxins.
Smells can bring your readers closer to your character.
Use Descriptions with Twists
According to Rayne Hall, “Use description to send subconscious signals… You can also use phrases that trigger emotions in the reader only – emotions the [point-of-view character] doesn’t share. To do this, compose the description so it largely matches the [point-of-view character’s] feelings – but make a few subtle word-choices that evoke what you want the reader to feel” (51%).
You could, for instance, write that a social worker meets a guy dressed in dark clothes with sullen eyes—a lost cause—but when she looks up at him, the sunlight seems to wrap him in a blinding white halo. This could offer testimony to his redemption or spiritual transformation throughout the story. It hints at what’s to come.
Descriptions with twists add a subtle foreshadowing.
Let the Reader Know More than the Character
Rayne Hall says, “Tell the reader more than the [point-of-view character] knows. If you’re writing in deep PoV, this is difficult to achieve. The solution is to plant several hints in a way that allows the [point-of-view] character to ignore them, while the reader picks them up” (52%).
Suppose Lynn is married to her husband, John, but only sees him on weekends. He travels for his job on weekdays. He never takes phone calls when he and Lynn are together. He has two cellphones, one he accidentally pulled out that had a picture of three children on the screensaver. When Lynn asked him why he had photos of kids, he said he liked kids, much to Lynn’s amusement. He doesn’t like to talk about work, and dismisses any request Lynn makes for details of his work life.
While Lynn seems oblivious, and has been for fourteen years, the reader gets more and more clues that John has a second family. Drop clues for the reader and leave the protagonist oblivious, and the reader will be glued.
Try stirring up emotions with these five tricks. Your readers will love you for it. And if they shed a tear, you’ve captured the beauty of a soul in your writing. What more poetic act could be achieved? I think none.